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DRONE VIEW: Coronavirus turns Rutgers’ College Avenue campus into a ghost town.

Asbury Park Press

WEST LONG BRANCH – At least 166 Monmouth University students are under a 10-day isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus, according to President Patrick Leahy, who blamed most of the cases on an “off-campus event” held two weeks ago.

“An overwhelming majority of the recent cases we have seen can be traced back to this isolated super-spreader event,” Leahy said in a letter posted on the university website.

University officials said Monday the event was at an off-campus student-rented house and those involved could face discipline for violating the student code of conduct.

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Patrick F. Leahy, Ed.D. speaks to the Asbury Park Press after it was announced he will serve as Monmouth University’s 10th president, effective Aug. 1, 2019 in Woodrow Wilson Hall at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ Friday, December 14, 2018. (Photo: Tanya Breen)

Leahy’s letter said the newest cases bring the total number of students who have tested positive since Aug. 24 to 291, with 135 of them recently recovered.

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Most Monmouth University classes are being held virtually, but some students are living on campus and the president said the rise in cases could delay a return to classrooms.

The president said another 206 students who have been deemed “at high-risk” for the virus through contact tracing are required to quarantine for 14 days.

That means more than 370 students are facing some kind of quarantine.

University spokesperson Tara Peters said the off-campus event was a gathering at a house rented by students, but had no further information on its location or how many people were involved.

She would not reveal if any discipline had been taken, citing student confidentiality.

Peters said the university’s student code of conduct had been updated this year to require students to abide by Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order requiring social distancing and wearing of masks, and said it also applies to off-campus housing.

“These students have been made aware of (social distancing and masking) regulations and if they violate the order they can face fines or jail, so we communicated that to all of those students,” she said about all off-campus housing. “It could end up resulting in a denial of services or access to classrooms or areas of campus if they are found to be in violation of the student code of conduct.”

West Long Branch and Monmouth County Health Department officials were not reachable for comment due to the Columbus Day holiday.

Increasing infection rates on college campuses nationwide have been a concern since the new school year began.

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Leahy provided no details on why the 206 students were deemed at-risk.

“Since we first reported a notable increase in COVID-19 cases on campus, we have learned – through extensive contact tracing efforts – additional details about the likely origin,” Leahy’s letter said about the off-campus event. “Moving forward, we will need 100% cooperation from our campus community in order to resume our fall semester as planned.”

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He also said in the letter that free on-site testing would be offered for all staff and students.

“Members of the Monmouth University community can be tested Monday through Friday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., with no appointment needed,” he wrote. “All specimens are being sent to the state lab, which reports a 24-48 hour test turnaround time. We have also increased staff support to communicate test results in an expeditious manner, as well as to enhance our contact tracing efforts within the community.”

Leahy said the recent string of cases may require the university to change its plan to move from a mostly virtual learning schedule to one with more students attending class on campus.

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“We intend to make a decision next week, before the end of the two-week remote instruction period, about plans for the second half of the fall semester,” Leahy’s letter said. “Expect to hear from me in the coming days with more information.”

Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and Monmouth County for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of two books, including Killing Journalism on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Reach him at jstrupp@gannettnj.com and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp

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